Forget Superman and Batman, DC has finally figured out how to make good superhero movies — they just had to look a bit deeper on the bench. The latest DC flick from Warner Bros., Shazam!, is an absolute blast, and turns a whole lot of the old superhero movie tropes on their heads in the best way possible.
Much like Fox’s Deadpool served as a wacky variant on the Marvel movie formula, Shazam! pokes fun at a lot of the old cliches that stymied more than a few of its peers (including more than a few of the recent DC films from Warner Bros.). Instead of costumed heroes standing in the pouring rain and growling about making one another bleed, you get a guy in a bright red costume with a glowing lightning bolt on his chest doing the floss and shooting sparks to the Rocky theme. If it wasn’t clear to this point, yeah, this is not your usual DC movie.
Based on the decades-old comic hero, Shazam! is pretty much the textbook definition of wish fulfillment, with a teenage kid inheriting magical superpowers that put him in the same stratosphere as Superman. The kid, Billy Batson, is played here by Disney Channel alum Asher Angel; with the
Take a dash of Spider-Man, a PG-13 shot of Deadpool, a drop of Stranger Things, a few cups of Big (complete with a throwaway floor piano gag) and just a dollop of Harry Potter and you kinda get a feel for what director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is aiming for here. In Levi, you have a guy who really can channel how a kid might think and act when given the keys to a super-powered body. The story dips into a few cliches of the genre — i.e. the training montage and figuring out how his powers work — but Levi and Grazer make it fun and funny enough you more than enjoy the ride. Want to figure out if you’re bullet-proof? Bust into the middle of a robbery and ask the thieves to shoot you in the face. Want to see if you can fly? Try (and fail) to jump over a skyscraper. Sure, you’ve probably seen those jokes a dozen times in the trailers already, but they still work.
Of course, this being a superhero flick — you have to talk about the action. So how is it? The fight scenes fall back on what fans of the genre are almost certainly already familiar with, from high-flying punch outs to slugfests with dark and dreary demon creatures. It’s still entertaining enough, but not really anything that’s going to push the medium forward. The film’s big bad, Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, is drawn a bit thinly at times. But still, Strong’s charisma can carry you pretty far on its own.
Where Shazam! really shines, though, is in the story of Billy Batson himself. He’s a foster kid who only wants to find his family, and spends most of his adolescence trying and failing to track down his missing mother. He’s just a kid grappling with emotions he’s not quite equipped for yet, and Shazam! wisely takes its time giving that arc room to breathe. At its heart, this is a story about family — a theme that makes for some surprising twists as the story goes on that we won’t spoil here. Sure, it’s not exactly new territory to tell a story about the family you find, but in the framework of a superhero story it’s not really something we’ve seen before.
Shazam! knows what makes it unique, and it leans hard into those narrative choices. This is a story fully told from a kid’s perspective, which isn’t something you get from most super-stories. They try to buy beer, and get a peek in a strip club. Y’know, stuff teenage boys would probably, actually do in this circumstance. There’s also the stakes, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof. Yes, Dr. Sivana is a threat to the world, but we really only see him causing chaos across Philly. This isn’t a story that really needed any universe-ending stakes, and keeping the story smaller really is a benefit.
It’s somewhat ironic that Warner Bros. is having its best creative luck with DC properties well outside the beaten path of A-listers like Superman or Batman that have dominated the box office for decades. It took Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now Shazam! for DC to finally start firing some creative shots back across the bow at Marvel Studios. If Shazam! is a harder glimpse at what DC has planned, I’d be happy to see this lightning strike twice.
Shazam! opens in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada on April 5th and in Australia on April 4th.
Directed by: David F. Sanberg
Written by: Henry Gayden
Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou
Distributed by: Warner Bros. / DC Films
Run time: 132 minutes
Election still wins by a landslide
Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.
The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.
Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).
But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.
Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.
A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)
More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.
Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.
Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.
What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.
“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.
“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)
Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.
That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.
Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”
But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.
After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.
While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.
Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.
Whose ego is that?
Election was originally released in April of 1999.
Film Review: It Chapter Two
The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans
The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.
It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.
The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material).
It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.
The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.
As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.
Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas now
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes